It’s that Christmas story time of year again. Well, sort of. I’m writing this in early November. I’m allowing myself a slow start.
My previous acquaintance with Coningsby Dawson comes from The Kingdom Round the Corner, which I liked a lot of things about without actually liking. The Little House is similarly almost-good, and similarly post-war, and also marginally a Christmas story. And it’s narrated by a house, which is sort of important at the beginning, forgettable through most of the middle, and briefly relevant again at the end. It’s almost cute in the same was Dawson is almost good. You know: there’s a lot of that furniture-having-conversations-after-midnight stuff. I want to like it, but I have limited patience.
The story begins during an air raid shortly before Christmas. The titular house is untenanted, and its caretaker has left the front door open in her haste to find a shelter. Meanwhile, a young widow — known to the house as “the little lady” — is passing through the square in which the house stands with her two small children, Robbie and Joan. They see the open door and take shelter, and so, a few minutes later, does an American soldier on his way to the front. They strike up a sort of friendship, but part without learning each other’s names.
A year later (the Unity of Christmastimes!) the soldier returns to the house, minus an arm, and finds that the little lady and her children live there now. They introduce themselves a little more formally, and take up their friendship where they left off before. He takes the kids to the zoo. He takes the little lady to the theater.It;s pretty obvious where this is going to everyone but the two principals.
She expects him to go home and forget about her. He thinks about whether he’s in love with her and decides that he’s not. So he has to change his mind, and she has to swallow her pride, and the structure of the narrative sort of requires that the house somehow make those things happen, so it does.
I almost really enjoy Coningsby Dawson. He has clever ideas. But his execution leaves me unmoved, and his insistence that a woman isn’t complete without a man to take care of her moves me in probably the opposite direction to what he would wish. This is a small, focused story — just two people, a single setting, a brief span of time and an inevitable conclusion. And if you’re going to do something so simple, you have to do it well. To hold your readers’ attention, if nothing else. But I kept getting distracted by the outside things, the things Dawson didn’t talk about. Like the little lady’s family and narrowing social life, and the soldier’s experience of war.
It’s frustrating when something is almost good. I think I would have really enjoyed this story in the hands of another writer. I think it’s going to take a lot to make me try Dawson again.